Thomas Okerson Full Biography
I was born into an old Monmouth County Dutch family and early in the Revolution declared my loyalty to Britain. When Washington’s army retreated through New Jersey in November and December 1776, leaving many areas of the state defenseless, I was one of hundreds of Monmouth men who enlisted as soldiers for King George. I joined with Lieutenant Colonel Elisha Lawrence’s First Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers and was commissioned lieutenant on December 15 to serve in Captain Ebenezer Wardell’s Company.
With no real military experience, my commission was not awarded for military skills, but rather depended on my ability to enlist at least sixteen men for the regiment. Once on duty, I was taught the ways of being a soldier by our battalion Adjutant, Lieutenant Patrick Henry, a former sergeant in the British 17th Regiment of Foot. He was one of many veteran British sergeants elevated to commissioned rank in the Loyalist units. When the illusions of a short war were dashed by the rebel victories at Trenton and Princeton, my battalion joined the British army around New Brunswick, while maintaining a post at Sandy Hook. Monmouth County became a battleground and I led a raid towards Shrewsbury in February 1777 that resulted in the capture of four men. When Sir William Howe removed his British army units from New Jersey and set off by sea to take Philadelphia, my battalion stayed behind, posted at the Old Blazing Star Ferry on the western end of Staten Island. On August 22, Continental troops surprised and captured more than ninety officers and men of my battalion, including our lieutenant colonel. I escaped unharmed and continued serving with the remnants of my battalion.
Because salt was crucial for preserving army provisions, in December 1777, Brigadier General Cortland Skinner of the New Jersey Volunteers developed a plan to destroy various rebel salt works along the New Jersey coast. On April 5, 1778, I was a guide for Captain Boyd Porterfield of the 71st Highlanders who led his men, along with some British marines and my First New Jersey Volunteers, to destroy at least one hundred houses employed in boiling sea water for salt at the Union Salt Works at Squan. We were unopposed and went on to destroy provisions, stores of salt, a quantity of grain, and a sloop from Boston.
Twenty days later my military career seemed over when the six battalions of New Jersey Volunteers were reorganized into four, and our battalion merged with the 5th. We now had too many officers and, even though General Skinner recommended that I be retained because I was a good officer and had been successful recruiting men for the service, I was retired on half-pay and returned to my residence on Water Street in New York City.
In late May of 1779 my fortunes changed and I was commissioned as a lieutenant in Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rogers’ newly formed First Battalion, King’s American Rangers. On June 10, 1779 I guided an expedition consisting of men from my old First New Jersey Volunteers along with some former officers like myself and armed Refugeesthat landed from boats and proceeded to Tinton Falls. We took several prisoners, along with many sheep and horses. Some Monmouth County militia came after us and fifteen of us held them off during the embarkation of the prisoners, livestock, and our troops onto our boats. We were nearly out of ammunition and successfully charged the militia with bayonets. I was celebrated in the New York City newspapers for my part in this action, but my military career again took a negative turn. Rogers’ battalion never achieved its full strength in men, and the excess officers, including me, were removed from duty and put on half pay.
I now needed to raise money to support my wife and four children and foolishly went into partnership with a nefarious gambler named Stephen Hawkins. Our scheme to make money went sour and people who felt we had defrauded them took out warrants for our arrest. I was arrested and thrown into New York City’s notorious Provost Prison on December 14, 1779. I was tried on May 4, 1780 and acquitted, but my career and fortunes were uncertain.
On January 14, 1781, I undertook a spy mission to gather information about the actions of the Pennsylvania Continental Line soldiers who had mutinied at Morristown on January 1 and marched towards Philadelphia. I travelled to within four miles of Trenton, where the mutineers resolved their grievances, and returned on February 1 with the information I had gathered. Afterwards I led a party of men to Pennsylvania to intercept a rebel dispatch rider. I expected to be paid for these dangerous services, but was denied. My family and I evacuated New York City with the British army and other Loyalists in 1783 and settled in Granville, Nova Scotia to make a new life.
Documents in the National Archives of Great Britain
General Orders for Provincial Forces, New York, 24 April 1777. Audit Office, Class 13, Volume 110, folio 235.
Certificate of Brigadier General John Campbell in the court martial proceedings of Lieutenant & Adjutant Patrick Henry, 21 March 1778. War Office, Class 71, Volume 85, Pages 399-422.
“Return of Rebel Prisoners taken by the 1st Battalion New Jersey Vols. at different Periods since December 1776.”War Office, Class 71, Volume 94, Page 108.
Proceedings of the trial of Lt. Thomas Okerson, 4 May 1780. War Office, Class 71, Volume 92, Pages 89-99, TNA.
Okerson to DeLancey, New York, 13 January 1783. Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/10051.
Abstract of 61 Days Subsistence due Seconded Provincial Officers, 25 October to 24 December 1782. Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/6506.
Documents in the New York State Library
“Roll of Captain Ebenezer Wardell’s Companie, 1st Battalion New Jersey Volunteers, Commanded by Lieut. Colonel Elisha Lawrence, Staten Island, August 19th, 1777.”Van Rensselaer-Rankin Collection, item 14485.
Documents in the Collections of the New Brunswick (Canada) Museum
“Return of the men on Command, Absent by leave, Recruiting, and prisoners with the Rebels, 1st Battn. New Jersey Volunteers, March 8th1778.”MC1161, MS 4, No. 4/1.
Documents in the University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library
Cortland Skinner to Sir Henry Clinton, New York, 16 December 1777. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 28, item 36.
Captain Boyd Porterfield to Sir Henry Clinton, Staten Island, 7 April 1778. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 33, item 15